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Alan Sorrell (1904-1974)

Alan Sorrell (1904-1974) attended the Royal College of Art in the mid-1920s during a period which saw the emergence of talents such as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, John Piper, Henry Moore and Barnett Freedman. Although Sorrell’s work has been less well documented his talent was comparable to that of artists more usually associated with the RCA’s formidable reputation during the interwar years.
What were Sorrell’s achievements and how should he be remembered by posterity? During his life Sorrell produced a vast cycle of murals (nearly 20 over a 30-year period). When exhibited for the first time in a generation at the British Murals show organized by Liss Fine Art at The Fine Art Society (London), William Packer described Sorrell’s recently rediscovered Festival of Britain mural as ‘utterly enchanting’ and ‘quite the star of the entire show’, (The Times 2.3.2013 p 91).
Another aspect of Sorrell’s oeuvre which deserves greater recognition are the paintings he produced during WW2. Like many artists of the period, such as Sir Thomas Monnington, Sorrell’s direct experience as an airman resulted in a new perspective – broad horizons and tilted aerial views which were to become the hallmark of his post-war reconstruction drawings. Never an Official War Artist he was able to choose his subjects with relative freedom which resulted in an engaging record of daily life in wartime Britain.
Sorrell’s work as a pre-war artist is relatively little known. Trained at Southend before starting to work as a commercial artist Sorrell subsequently took up a scholarship at the RCA (1924) – an association later strengthened by his period as a teacher there (1931-48). In between he spent two years at the British School at Rome on a Scholarship.
Almost no work survives from Sorrell’s period as an RCA student other than the preparatory drawings with which he competed for his 1928 Rome Scholarship. The RCA archives for this period are much depleted (probably having been destroyed in the war), as a result of which it is hard to gain a fuller picture of this formative period of his life. An equally small body of work has survived from his two years in Rome though his early self-portrait (November 1928) – a masterly fusion of nagging self-doubt and youthful self confidence – hints at the emerging power of his talent. Sorrell recorded his time at the British School at Rome in an unpublished typescript titled Barbarians in Rome in which he paints a vivid picture of life at the school during the years 1928-30.
Returning from Rome in 1930, Sorrell produced some very fine works: Artist in the Campagna (c. 1931), Appian Way (1932), Rocky Formation at Thingvellir (1934), The Long Journey (1936), A Land Fit for Heros (1936). Sorrell’s vision was born out of the Romantic British tradition exemplified by Blake, Palmer and their 20th-century disciples.
Sorrell is principally remembered today as an illustrator of articles on archaeology for The Illustrated London News and books ranging from Roman Britain to The Holy Bible, (more than 15 books over a period of 40 years, the last Reconstructing the Past appearing posthumously in 1981) and for reconstruction drawings for the Ministry of Works – later English Heritage. Through these projects Sorrell played a unique role at a crucial moment in the development of archaeology as a discipline helping it develop from non-specialist to rigorous professional activity. The pioneering archaeologists he worked with read like a roll call of honour: Cyril and Ailen Fox, Dr Kathleen Kenyon, Professor Brian Emery, Mortimer Wheeler, Leonard Woolley, V. E. Nash-Williams, Ian Richmond, James Mellaart, Shepherd Frere and Philip Rahtz. For this and subsequent generations of archaeologists Sorrell’s work holds a special fascination. Out of context some of these drawings can appear dated, but the majority are infused with the qualities of Sorrell’s most evocative work – composed from a dynamic panoramic viewpoint full of imaginative details. This area of specialization, where Sorrell was successful in avoiding the predictable or formulaic, was not a cul de sac into which he withdrew from the artistic mainstream. Sorrell was acutely aware of contemporary issues and the same rigorous approach also inspired his remarkable series of drawings recording the construction of Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station (from October 1957 to 1965). A photograph of Sorrell recording the Nuclear Reactor No 4 makes a poignant pair to the photograph of the same period which shows him sketching at Stonehenge.
Sorrell continued to develop his vision consistently over a highly productive half century. His journey was not always easy. Struggling at times financially he also suffered rejection and disappointment – the War Artists Committee turned down his application to become an Official War Artist; he was dismissed from his teaching post at the RCA by Robin Darwin (1948) and failed in his subsequent application to become head of Winchester Art School. And as late as 1964, when he was put forward for election to the RA by John Ward, his candidature was rejected. He was a man of principle: when serving in the RAF he staged a ‘one man mutiny’, refusing to work on terrain models of cities he considered to be of ‘irreplaceable artistic importance’. He was an active environmentalist campaigning in Essex in the mid-1950s to protect local fields, woodlands and hedgerows from urban development.
Sorrell made numerous journeys to distant lands, painting in Iceland (1934), Greece and Turkey (1954), Egypt and the Sudan (1962) where he travelled with a specially made canvas bag designed to stop his materials melting in the sun. A latter-day Holman Hunt, and with some of Holman Hunt’s heroism (!), he faithfully recorded scenes in situ including a remarkable series of over sixty drawings of the villages around Nubia threatened by the building of the High Dam at Aswan (1962). In other pictures his journeys were imagined, dramatic fantasies of falling towers, or trains rushing over viaducts.
As an epitaph for ‘England’s Early Sculptors’ John Piper used a thirteenth century chronicle by Peter Langtoft: ‘the wander wit of Wiltshire’ went to Rome to study the antiquities, but when the antiquaries learnt that he had never seen Stonehenge they sent him back to find inspiration in his own country. This story has a certain resonance with Sorrell’s own artistic journey and ultimately his success in forging a vision which responded to both legacies.

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Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for mural for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947
Alan Sorrell
Study for mural for the canteen of...  For sale
£320
Artist Alan Sorrell: Portrait of Evelyn Gibbs, circa 1929
Alan Sorrell
Portrait of Evelyn Gibbs, circa 1929  For sale
£650
Artist Alan Sorrell: Early self portrait, circa 1925
Alan Sorrell
Early self portrait, circa 1925  For sale
£960
Artist Alan Sorrell: Istanbul: The Lesser Golden Gate, 1955
Alan Sorrell
Istanbul: The Lesser Golden Gate, 1955  For sale
£990
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for a reconstruction of the Triangular temple at Verulamium (Roman St Albans)
Alan Sorrell
Study for a reconstruction of the...  For sale
£960
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self Portrait in Graduation Gown
Alan Sorrell
Self Portrait in Graduation Gown  For sale
£1500
Artist Alan Sorrell: Mural I for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947
Alan Sorrell
Mural I for the canteen of John D....  For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Farm in Iceland, circa 1936
Alan Sorrell
Farm in Iceland, circa 1936  For sale
£675
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Murals for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947
Alan Sorrell
Study for Murals for the canteen of...  For sale
£720
Artist Alan Sorrell: WW2, Interior of an RAF dormitory
Alan Sorrell
WW2, Interior of an RAF dormitory  For sale
£940
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Ramesseum Thebes, 1962
Alan Sorrell
The Ramesseum Thebes, 1962  For sale
£485
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Lake of Albano and Monte Cavo, 1928
Alan Sorrell
The Lake of Albano and Monte Cavo, 1928  For sale
£2090
Artist Alan Sorrell: Hadleigh Castle from the West, c. 1936
Alan Sorrell
Hadleigh Castle from the West, c. 1936  For sale
£1100
Artist Alan Sorrell: Thors Mead, 1947
Alan Sorrell
Thors Mead, 1947  For sale
£1050
Artist Alan Sorrell: Studies of Mr Turner, for the mural at Turners Hardware shop in Hadleigh High Street, circa 1956
Alan Sorrell
Studies of Mr Turner  For sale
£690
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for a Book jacket design, c. 1920
Alan Sorrell
Study for a Book jacket design, c. 1920  For sale
£1200
Artist Alan Sorrell: Tea time, 1926
Alan Sorrell
Tea time, 1926  For sale
£1320
Artist Alan Sorrell: Sheet of studies of an illustminated manuscript
Alan Sorrell
Sheet of studies of an illustminated...  For sale
£630
Artist Alan Sorrell: Book jacket design,c. 1920,
Alan Sorrell
Book jacket design,c. 1920,  For sale
£695
Artist Alan Sorrell: Book jacket design, early 1920s
Alan Sorrell
Book jacket design, early 1920s  For sale
£1540
Artist Alan Sorrell: Vignette with model houses
Alan Sorrell
Vignette with model houses  For sale
£300
Artist Alan Sorrell: Part 3, Illustration for The Broken Gates, circa 1950
Alan Sorrell
Part 3  For sale
£650
Artist Alan Sorrell: part 2, Illustration for The Broken Gates, circa 1950
Alan Sorrell
part 2  For sale
£450
Artist Alan Sorrell: Portrait , circa 1927
Alan Sorrell
Portrait , circa 1927  For sale
£460
Artist Alan Sorrell: Dejeuner sur lherbe
Alan Sorrell
Dejeuner sur l'herbe  For sale
£720
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for St Richard starts out on a Journey.
Alan Sorrell
Study for 'St Richard starts out on...  For sale
£860
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Thingvellir, Iceland, 1936
Alan Sorrell
Study for Thingvellir, Iceland, 1936  For sale
£720
Artist Alan Sorrell: May Morning, Putney Embankment, July 6th, 1939
Alan Sorrell
May Morning  For sale
£3350
Artist Alan Sorrell: RAF encampment
Alan Sorrell
RAF encampment  For sale
£1350
Artist Alan Sorrell: Arriving at the airfield, circa 1940
Alan Sorrell
Arriving at the airfield, circa 1940  For sale
£1100
Artist Alan Sorrell: The artists wife picking apples, study for The Four Seasons, mural at Myton, Warwick, 1958
Alan Sorrell
The artists wife picking apples  For sale
£430
Artist Alan Sorrell: Landscape with trees and viaduct, circa 1930
Alan Sorrell
Landscape with trees and viaduct  For sale
£525
Artist Alan Sorrell: June 12 1933, Kensington Gardens
Alan Sorrell
June 12 1933, Kensington Gardens  For sale
£430
Artist Alan Sorrell: View on the Roman Forum from Capitoline Hill, 1937
Alan Sorrell
View on the Roman Forum from...  For sale
£720
Artist Alan Sorrell: Cyprus Tree, study for The Appian Way, circa 1932
Alan Sorrell
Cyprus Tree  For sale
£660
Artist Alan Sorrell: Beach Scene, probably Eype Beach in Dorset, circa 1950
Alan Sorrell
Beach Scene  For sale
£480
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study after Raphael, circa 1929
Alan Sorrell
Study after Raphael, circa 1929  For sale
£430
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for People Seeking After Wisdom, 1928
Alan Sorrell
Study for People Seeking After Wisdom  For sale
£785
Artist Alan Sorrell: South Harting, August 1929
Alan Sorrell
South Harting, August 1929  For sale
£975
Artist Alan Sorrell: Figures planting a tree
Alan Sorrell
Figures planting a tree  For sale
£460
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for The Traveller
Alan Sorrell
Study for The Traveller  For sale
£460
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for The Long Journey, 1936
Alan Sorrell
Study for The Long Journey, 1936  For sale
£2950
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Evening Signal, 1940
Alan Sorrell
The Evening Signal, 1940  For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Marching Gun Range and Rifle Range, RAF Station
Alan Sorrell
Study for Marching Gun Range and...  For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Watch Office, RAF Station, circa 1944
Alan Sorrell
Study for Watch Office  For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for People Seeking After Wisdom, c 1928
Alan Sorrell
Study for People Seeking After Wisdom  For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Sketch for An Aerial View of a Wartime Airfield, circa 1944
Alan Sorrell
Sketch for An Aerial View of a...  For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for An Aerial View of a Wartime Airfield
Alan Sorrell
Study for An Aerial View of a...  For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Long Journey, 1936
Alan Sorrell
The Long Journey, 1936  Privately held 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Sketch for examination competition, People Seeking After Wisdom, March 1, 1928
Alan Sorrell
Sketch for examination competition  Privately held 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self Portrait, nov 1928
Alan Sorrell
Self Portrait, nov 1928  Privately held 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for People Seeking After Wisdom, 1928
Alan Sorrell
Study for People Seeking After Wisdom  Privately held 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Rochester, (windy day) c. 1918-20
Alan Sorrell
Rochester, (windy day) c. 1918-20  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Stambridge Mill near Rochford
Alan Sorrell
Stambridge Mill near Rochford  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: An Assyrian Lion Hunt
Alan Sorrell
An Assyrian Lion Hunt  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for The Trembling Earth, 1946
Alan Sorrell
Study for The Trembling Earth, 1946  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Hadleigh Castle
Alan Sorrell
Hadleigh Castle  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for a reconstruction of a Roman fort
Alan Sorrell
Study for a reconstruction of a...  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Landscape (inscribed “Snowdon from Capel Curig)
Alan Sorrell
Landscape (inscribed “Snowdon from...  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self portrait, circa 1925
Alan Sorrell
Self portrait, circa 1925  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study with Shasta Daisies in a Blue Vase
Alan Sorrell
Study with Shasta Daisies in a Blue...  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self Portrait
Alan Sorrell
Self Portrait  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for A Land Fit for Heroes, 1936
Alan Sorrell
Study for A Land Fit for Heroes, 1936  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Roman Caerwent - sketch for a reconstruction of the Romano-celtic temple.
Alan Sorrell
Roman Caerwent - sketch for a...  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Reconstruction drawing: Roman Londinium
Alan Sorrell
Reconstruction drawing: Roman Londinium  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Roman Silchester, (Calleva Artrebatum) from the East
Alan Sorrell
Roman Silchester  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Design for Norman Britain book jacket
Alan Sorrell
Design for Norman Britain book jacket  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for The Nelson Bar, HMS Campania, 1951
Alan Sorrell
Study for The Nelson Bar  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study in two sheets for Working Boats, Mural of the Nelson Bar, HMS Campania, 1951
Alan Sorrell
Study in two sheets for 'Working Boats'  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Men Sandbagging, 1939
Alan Sorrell
Men Sandbagging, 1939  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Working Boats from Around the British Coast, Mural of the Nelson Bar, HMS Campania, 1951
Alan Sorrell
Working Boats from Around the...  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self Portrait, painted in the Vestry at Thors Mead. c. 1948
Alan Sorrell
Self Portrait  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Postman, sept 1931
Alan Sorrell
The Postman, sept 1931  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Old Sarum Cathedral Wiltshire
Alan Sorrell
Old Sarum Cathedral Wiltshire  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Rochester, c. 1918-20
Alan Sorrell
Rochester, c. 1918-20  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Sudanese Express Passing Abu Simbel
Alan Sorrell
Sudanese Express Passing Abu Simbel  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Artist in the Campagna, ca 1931
Alan Sorrell
The Artist in the Campagna, ca 1931  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Train in a Landscape
Alan Sorrell
Train in a Landscape  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: RAF Camp, circa 1944
Alan Sorrell
RAF Camp, circa 1944  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: RAF Camp in the Woods
Alan Sorrell
RAF Camp in the Woods  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: RAF Camp, signed and dated 1940,
Alan Sorrell
RAF Camp, signed and dated 1940,  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for the North arch of St Peter’s Church, Bexhill-on-Sea, 1951
Alan Sorrell
Study for the North arch of St...  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Appian Way, 1932
Alan Sorrell
The Appian Way, 1932  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Arum lilies
Alan Sorrell
Arum lilies  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Mawgan Porth 1916, Cornwall
Alan Sorrell
Mawgan Porth 1916, Cornwall  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Trembling Earth
Alan Sorrell
The Trembling Earth  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Reconstruction of Harlech Castle, 1970
Alan Sorrell
Reconstruction of Harlech Castle, 1970  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Leigh, the Old Town
Alan Sorrell
Leigh, the Old Town  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Beach at Southend, circa 1950
Alan Sorrell
The Beach at Southend, circa 1950  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Walton-on-The-Naze 1952 (Richard in Foreground)
Alan Sorrell
Walton-on-The-Naze 1952 (Richard in...  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Istanbul, The Wall of Manuel Comnenus, 1954,
Alan Sorrell
Istanbul  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Near Rivers Corner Daws Heath
Alan Sorrell
Near River's Corner Daw's Heath  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Rayleigh, Essex, circa 1948
Alan Sorrell
Rayleigh, Essex, circa 1948  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Early Self-Portrait, mid 1920s
Alan Sorrell
Early Self-Portrait, mid 1920's  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self-Portrait, late 1930s
Alan Sorrell
Self-Portrait, late 1930s  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Essex landscape panoramic view
Alan Sorrell
Essex landscape panoramic view  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Rebuilding a bomb damaged site, circa 1945
Alan Sorrell
Rebuilding a bomb damaged site  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Artists paint-box and sketching bag on a Windsor chair
Alan Sorrell
The Artist's paint-box and sketching...  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Processing the Catch, Wharf Scene, Iceland, c.1935
Alan Sorrell
Processing the Catch  Sold 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Village in Iceland, circa 1934
Alan Sorrell
Village in Iceland, circa 1934  Sold